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Democrats push FERC to boost grid upgrades

Mar 7, 2024

A group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Peter Welch, are calling on the agency to offer utilities incentives for grid-enhancing technologies.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Some congressional Democrats are urging federal energy regulators to promote grid upgrades as a way to meet the country’s surging electricity demand.

In a letter shared with E&E News — and sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Wednesday — the four lawmakers write that “a lack of transmission capacity is preventing new clean energy supply from coming online.”

The letter — led by Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — argues that grid-enhancing technologies, or GETs, could help squeeze more renewable power through existing power lines.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) joined Welch, who chairs the Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy.

Castor and Tonko both sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — where Tonko is ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee — while King sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Their letter comes amid the Biden administration’s push to achieve a zero-carbon grid by 2035. Lawmakers in more than a half-dozen states are considering whether to require utilities to analyze GETs to accommodate the transition to renewable energy.

U.S. grid planners have also forecast a growth inpeak demand of 38 gigawatts through 2028, according to an December analysis from Grid Strategies.

GETs can help the grid meet that increased demand, the lawmakers write in the letter. Such technologies, they write, are “typically much cheaper than traditional grid buildout” and key to “making the most of existing lines.”

GETs, for example, include dynamic line ratings, which would enable operators to adjust a power line’s capacity based on real-time weather forecasts (in contrast to using annual or seasonal forecasts to set often-conservative capacity limits that protect lines from overheating).

They also include power-flow control devices, which are smart switches within the grid that boost efficiency and reliability by managing and redirecting electricity.

The lawmakers want FERC to adopt a rule that directs electric utilities to split the cost savings of deploying GETs with their customers. That would replace the traditional and more common “return on equity” approach that gives power companies a set profit percentage for their investments.

The letter also calls “encouraging” a 2020 FERC proposal that would focus incentives on the benefits of a transmission investment or upgrade, rather than on the rate of return for a project.

Groups in favor of GETs, such as the Working for Advanced Transmission Technologies (WATT) Coalition and Advanced Energy United, have advocated for a shared savings model. But utilities have raised concerns that replacing the return-on-equity model could lead to higher electric rates for customers if GETs don’t save as much money as anticipated.

In an email, FERC spokesperson Celeste Miller said the agency “will respond to the letter in due course.”

Reporter Carlos Anchondo contributed.

This story also appears in Energywire.

Story Written by Zack Bright, E&E News

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